By: Sarah Ansari
I am a stranger to the girl that once was me. They tell me she was shy, but vibrant. She scurried around speaking so many languages and was in-tune with her identity, at peace with it. That girl, which my relatives describe to me with such care in their eyes, is someone who I do not recognize, and yet I feel a shame twisting into my heart like a dagger because once upon a time, I was her.
Sometimes I am frustrated. It happens in those moments that I hear my mother on the phone, speaking in the bubbling words of Tagalog, and I am straining, straining, trying to pick up anything at all, celebrating over one understood word. When the Indian kids at school clustered together and talked about their heritage, I would hover nearby. I wanted to join them, but I was– I am a fraud.
When I mustered up the courage to tell them I was also Indian, they offered me blank stares and then continued talking as if I had never spoken.
Later, a girl from the group would come up to me and ask, “Did you mean Indian, Indian? Because I thought you meant American Indian?”
My ethnic ambiguity is a marvel to some. They like playing guessing games about who I am. My brown skin and dark hair give them little in the way of a clue. They offer me suggestions about my identity: Spanish, Hawaiian, Native– and when I tell them the truth– that I am half-Filipino and half-Indian (yes, Indian-Indian, not Native American), their eyes grow wide and they delightedly tell me that they’ve never heard of that mix before.
I do not mind their words so much, despite the fact that sometimes they make me feel like a dog, whose pedigree is on display for people to gawk at. I know the people who say these things do not mean it like that, I know that they mean well, and so I smile and shrug and brush the comment off.
It’s worse when they tell me how exotic I am. The term erases the struggles I have had as a mixed-race American, and I become an object, a strange anomaly of culture to be enjoyed by others because of how “unique” I am. It reminds me that, despite the fact that I have spent a large majority of my life in the United States, I am other.
But if I am other here, in a country where I grew up, where do I find my place?
The comments follow me wherever I go.
In the Philippines, my mother is stopped constantly by curious strangers who want to know if my father is a foreigner. I largely inherited Filipino genes, and to the American eye, I might pass as a full Filipino, but here they know that I am not quite right– that I do not fit in.
Once I went to the Taj Mahal. My family in India had secured us some tickets at a discounted rate made available to local people. I was excited– until I reached the front of the line. The man working there took one look at my ticket, then at me, and declared I was not Indian. Defenseless against a language I did not speak despite having been born in the country, I was cast aside, made to buy a new ticket simply because I did not look the part. In spite of the salwar kameez that I wore– in spite of the fact that my dad readily argued with the guy in Hindi that I am his daughter, I was not Indian enough.
There are times that I lash out against my parents for not teaching me of my culture. I think at night of my inability to communicate with some members of my extended family, of my ostracization from the countries to which I have a connection, and I fall asleep with an unreasonable hatred in my heart and with tears stinging my eyes.
But still, I know it is not their fault.
In elementary school, my mother would lovingly pack me meals of chicken adobo or tandoori to eat at lunch. At first, I enjoyed them. Then I began to notice the looks of disgust kids cast towards me, and the first time a girl, glancing over my shoulder, said Ew, I stopped bringing food to school. I got anxious about eating anything in front of anybody, because my brain told me that the girl’s disgust at my culture extended to myself, and I was ashamed of my very existence.
Another time, the girls sitting clustered near me gossiped about what they thought of people from other countries. They were all in agreement that the people of India were gross and smelly, and I was silent, too afraid to voice my dissent.
They turned their gazes onto me, and asked in honeyed tongues,
“Sarah, isn’t your dad from India?”
My face flushed at this, I remember growing hot– not knowing how to respond. Their mocking grins loomed in my mind, teeth flashing white like fangs about to rip me apart. All I managed to stutter out was,
“I don’t know.”
I don’t know. But how could I not? I denied my identity in the space of a second because I was embarrassed to even be associated with it.
Whenever I ask my mother why she and my dad did not continue teaching me Tagalog or Hindi, she tells me that it was because I would often confuse the languages when I spoke– that she was afraid that allowing me to retain them would impact my English, and give the kids at school another reason to hate me.
Although I am proud of my culture now, there was a time where I readily hid it. I’m ashamed to admit it, but it’s true. I would hide my parents’ accented English behind my own, ask them to speak as little as possible. Instead of seeing their words as a sign of strength– a marker of their hard work and perseverance, building a life in a country ready to cast them aside– instead of admiring them for achieving the “American dream” despite having poor upbringings and the odds stacked against them– I thought their words must be hidden away because they were foreign.
And then I wonder– if my parents had taught their languages to me, had immersed me in my roots, would I even have cared? Would I feel gratitude, or would I feel anger as I tried to whitewash myself and hide who I am? Although my heart yearns to connect with my cultures now, perhaps back then, I would have still cast aside my identity with reckless abandon, trying to fit into a society that, to this day, insists upon seeing me as other.